J: A Novel

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Review #28: Fiction

Blogging for Books #9

J: A Novel by Howard Jacobson

J A Novel

Jacobson’s novel, set in a possible future, revolves around the lives of those after WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. Though we are never actually told WHAT HAPPENED, it seems to be some sort of genocide, based on religious beliefs or genetics — it was pretty vague with no real facts of any kind to grasp on to to anchor yourself as a reader.

No one (or supposedly no one) in this future knows WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, their real history/pasts; they don’t talk about it, there’s no nostalgia for things, people, or times — no keepsakes or heirlooms. Everyone is very sheltered.

Ailinn and Kevern meet (by accident, we think, but learn otherwise), they become lovers and begin a relationship. Kevern’s teacher and Ailinn’s guardian seem to be hiding something from the both of them. Kevern is highly suspicious of everything and everyone; he thinks he’s being watched. Ailinn has been running from an imaginary foe (her fear) forever. They make a very neurotic and dysfunctional pair.

When a woman in town, her lover, and her husband are all murdered, Kevern becomes a suspect because he once kissed the woman. The detective does not actually suspect Kevern, but uses this investigation as an excuse to keep tabs on him, to learn more about him, to search his home. This investigator is a conspiracy theorist about WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, and thinks Kevern and Ailinn are pieces to the puzzle he’s working on.

Jacobson creates interest and intrigue from the beginning, drawing us into the mystery of WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, and what Kevern and Ailinn have to do with it. He weaves in a bit of romance with Kevern and Ailinn’s relationship, but that flame fizzles out, as does the mystery of WHAT HAPPENED as the story progresses. I really like the book to begin with, but around the middle to the end, the story lost speed and appeal. Some passages and flashbacks seem disjointed and ultimately unimportant to the novel as a whole and pull readers away from the main story Jacobson is telling.

Throughout, Jacobson uses beautiful language, however, some areas felt over-the-top and forced…like these large words and intricate sentences were unnecessary to get the point across. Different language and different tones would have helped the story flow more smoothly.

The book is described as 1984 meets Brave New World, which is a pretty spot on description. That connection does not disappoint.

Overall, I’m not really sure anything actually happened. The story (of the past) was semi-told through flashbacks of Kevern’s family, Ailinn’s family, and Ez’s (Ailinn’s guardian) family, among others. The events of the current story seemed to be setting up an ending that would have been more definite, more certain. Some plot points were started and never wrapped up, leaving us with the feeling that they weren’t important to the novel at all — why include them if they won’t be material in the end? A future to this future was hinted at but not put into motion enough to feel content with it as an end to this novel.

J: A Novel starts with a lot of potential, but falls a bit flat in the end.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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Father of Lies

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Review #22: Fiction

Father of Lies by Brian Evenson

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This novel is dark. It is disturbing. It is uncomfortable. And all of it is completely necessary.

Though written nearly two decades ago, it still speaks truthfully and unreservedly about religion, about cult-like followings, about perversions of the mind. It is difficult to read in many passages, but truly sheds light on using religion and blind faith as excuses to harm others (in this case through pedophilic sexual assault, murder, and incest), and as excuses to trust and protect the unworthy against your better judgment.

Evenson does not hold back. Though less graphic than it probably could have been, there is enough here to make your skin crawl—and it should. This is the point of the novel.

Readers follow first person accounts of Provost Fochs as he rapes young members of his congregation, even murdering one of them, and uses his faith and the name of God to justify his actions. His superiors in the religious community believe him when he denies any involvement in these heinous acts, rationalizing his position in the church as proof enough that he couldn’t be responsible for such evil deeds. However, this simply points out the blind eyes turned in religious communities; Fochs’s superiors didn’t want him to be guilty, so he wasn’t. Eventually, some truths become known to these superiors, and since they’d stood by Foch for so long, they couldn’t now turn their backs on him for fear of damaging the name of the church.

Through the novel, Fochs sees a therapist because he begins acting out and speaking in his sleep, worrying his wife with the things he’s saying—things relating to the horrible acts committed against the young members of the community. Readers are given glimpses into these therapy sessions where Fochs relays his actions as if they were merely dreams, spurred by the news coverage of the events. He claims his dreams are a manifestation of the guilt he feels at letting harm come to the youth of his community, that he is unfit to be Provost since he could not protect his congregation.

Eventually his therapist, Dr. Feshtig, feels Fochs’s “dreams” to be more than that, that Fochs is in fact guilty of the events, and reaches out to Fochs’s family and the authorities to try to bring him to justice.

Through the book, Fochs speaks to what first seems an alter-ego, a man he refers to as “Bloody Head”, a person who encourages Fochs to commit his crimes, and to cover them up, all the time insisting that it is God’s will for Fochs to act this way. It is unclear what this “Bloody Head” character is—alter-ego, demon perhaps—and until the end of the book, is not seen or spoken to by anyone other than Fochs. Until the time when Fochs’s wife interacts with this character, it seemed as if “Bloody Head” represented mental illness, personality disorder of some kind in Fochs. But that cannot be the case if he becomes a flesh-blood-character outside of Fochs in the end.

CAUTION, SOME SPOILERS AHEAD

This character becomes increasing confusing when he, through the vary violation to Fochs that Fochs had inflicted on others, miraculously (in Fochs’s mind) gets the investigation of Fochs as the murderer of a young girl stopped. Though Fochs is forced to give a blood sample after a tip is called in, and his blood is a match for some found at the murder scene, somehow, Fochs doesn’t hear from the police again. Evenson doesn’t even explain what happens with the case at all—if it was dropped, if the girl’s brother (who was the prime suspect before Fochs) was charged—it just goes away.

In the end, even though Fochs’s superiors in the church know what he’d done, but because they fought against his accusers previously, they were forced to stay silent to save face. Fochs is transferred to a religious college to remove him from the specific community, and in theory, from a younger congregation. As Fochs himself says in the end, this move is simply a new beginning.

Though there are parts of the story that were confusing, felt unfinished or unexplained, this novel is wonderfully written. It’s very raw, and very real. It calls attention to so many real-life situations—and not just as they relate to religious communities. There are instances of sexism, of victim blaming, that resonate outside of this specific narrative.

Father of Lies is a work of fiction, but the contents of the novel are all too real, and should surely make any reader stop and think about religion in society, of religious leaders who are seen as holy and thus above the law, how we, as humans, see evil where we want to see it and ignore it where we don’t. I would not call this a pleasant read, but it is fascinating in its own way. Do not come into this novel unprepared, but definitely do read it.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

*Cover art from Amazon.com

The Final Silence

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Review #19: Fiction

The Final Silence by Stuart Neville

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*I received this book as an advanced readers copy at the Book Expo America in New York City in May, 2014. The hardcover goes on sale October 28th, 2014.

The newest novel from award winning crime/thriller writer Stuart Neville is a roller coaster of gruesome murders and deadly secrets. This is the fourth installment of his Belfast novels, revolving around now disgraced investigator Jack Lennon.

Rea Carlisle, whose father is a prominent politician, inherits her uncle house after her mother’s brother dies. While cleaning out the house, Rea comes across an upstairs bedroom that is locked. After prying the door open with a crowbar, Rea discovers a secret book. The contents of the book describe several grisly murders; journal entries about committing the crimes, newspaper articles, and even hair clippings and fingernails of the victims.

Rea wants to take the book to the police immediately, however, her father (thinking of his political aspirations) wants to keep the whole thing quiet. Not knowing what to do, and not wanting to keep the book and the crimes a secret, Rea reaches out to an old friend — Jack Lennon. Since Jack is not currently working on the police force, he can’t do much other than look into Rea’s suspicions. But after the book goes missing and another horrible murder is committed, the Belfast police become fully involved.

DCI Serena Flanagan takes the case and, in a sense, (secretly) teams up with Lennon to track down the book, and the killer, before more murders pile up.

The plot moves at breakneck speed, with lots of secrets, lots of lies, and, well, lots of murders, both in the past and the present. Neville sets up an intricate web of good guys, bad guys, and every type of person in between. There are a few twists, and a handful of quick shocks that keep the story moving, and the pressure on DCI Flanagan and Lennon to find the incriminating book, catch the killer, and, in a way, begin to clean up Lennon’s heavily tarnished reputation.

Neville creates deep, flawed, real characters that move this story along just as smoothly as the actions do. Each has a very unique voice, and detailed and specific view of the world and the events that take place, and are genuine in their personalities.

With these characters and the action-packed and chilling plot, Neville does not disappoint old or new fans.

Though this novel stands completely on it’s own, and does a good job of integrating any relevant background information on Lennon and his career and relationship with his daughter and deceased wife’s family, I found my lack of complete understanding of Jack’s history a little annoying. There is a lot of mention of past events dealing with Jack’s police work, his wife and family life, and trauma in his life and his daughter;s that, though ultimately holding no real bearing on the plot, disconnected me from Lennon as a character because I didn’t know the full story. This is not a detriment to the book or Neville’s writing; anything really important was fleshed out, but I was always wanting more information. Whenever something from the past came up, I wished I was being reminded of information I already knew rather than hearing about it for the first time. So, my only issue with reading this novel is that it was my first Lennon book but the fourth in Neville’s Lennon collection. I would suggest anyone interested in this title and Jack Lennon’s story start with Collusion or it’s prequel The Ghosts of Belfast (where Jack is introduced as a minor character).

Basically Neville writes a fast-paced thrilling murder mystery that incorporates a collection of flawed (though in most cases well-intentioned) characters that sends shivers down your spine from the shear twistedness of the crimes.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

*cover art from Amazon.com

Summer House With Swimming Pool

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Review #18: Fiction

Blogging for Books #3

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

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I haven’t read any of Herman Koch’s previous work, but apparently he is known for his unlikable characters, and on this point, his fans won’t be disappointed. I found each character either unremarkable to the point where I didn’t care at all, or unlikable to the point where I wasn’t all that interested in how the story played out for them. I read to find out where Koch was going with this plot, to see how he would tie all the ends together, but for the most part I was not engaged with the characters.

I do enjoy a good unlikable character, but I always feel like at least one needs to be likable enough to keep me rooting for them throughout. Each character in Summer House was either forgettable or reprehensible. Bad things happened to bad people and I guess I just wasn’t concerned with how it all ended, because no matter the consequences, they’d earned it.

That said, Koch clearly knows how to write these characters; he did a wonderful job making each one just horrible enough that you could never really decide which was a worse person than the last. The adults in the novel were awful to each other and the men especially awful to women. I suppose this was all part of creating the unlikable characters, but the blatant misogyny and sexism, though effective, wasn’t my cup of tea. Even the children, save the two youngest, were rude, self-centered, and conniving. Again, it’s clear that Koch is a master of the unlikable character, so if that’s the type of story you gravitate toward, this might be a great read for you.

The story revolves around Dr. Marc Schlosser and his patient and famous actor Ralph Meier. Schlosser runs a general practice and Ralph comes to see him about a lump he’s found. Soon after, Ralph is dead and people begin looking to Schlosser for answers.

We’re given the story from the present, when Ralph’s wife confronts Schlosser at his office, accusing him of murdering her husband. We’re then taken to the previous summer when Schlosser’s family spent time with Ralph’s family at the Meier summer home. Through the events that happen at the summer house, we’re given glimpses into the awful lives the adults are living, and the addition of their children (two girls for the Schlossers and two boys for the Meiers) we see their actions and behavior as even more despicable.

Something happens at the house that turns Schlosser against Meier, though the true facts are kept from him and reader until the end of the book. The meaty part of the story is finding out what really happened at the summer house, what in turn happened to Ralph (and if Schlosser was involved), and what comes next. Though we are finally told what really happened at the summer house, and exactly how Ralph died, we are left without the “what comes next” part. We see Schlosser and what consequences he could be facing for his actions throughout the book, but we never see if he gets what’s coming or not.

I was interested in finding out the truth behind the tragedy at the summer house, and also how Schlosser was connected to Ralph’s death, but I was disconnected a bit. I didn’t care that Ralph was dead because he was such an unlikable character. I was concerned with the truth of the events at the summer house, however, I felt let down when it was finally revealed; it was all a bit lack-luster. And as I also cared very little for Schlosser, not seeing if he had to face the consequences of his actions left something to be desired. I wasn’t looking for a happy ending, I just felt like there wasn’t an ending at all. It felt a bit open-ended. I would have rather known definitively if he got what was coming to him or if he didn’t rather than, perhaps he did, perhaps he didn’t.

Regardless, Koch did a great job of making his characters unlikable, though I personally found them therefore be uninteresting and found myself disconnected from the story surrounding them. I like that we start in the present to set the scene and then are taken back to the summer (and given short scenes from even further back to when Schlosser was in med school), then back to the present where we move forward with the characters.

I’ve seen reviews of this book where people say the story is too graphic. I, however, found it appropriately graphic for the most part. Some of the graphic descriptions help depict the awfulness of the characters and their thoughts and actions. This is also an adult novel, so language and graphic visuals shouldn’t really be much of a shock. We’re also dealing with a medical novel. The main character is a general physician and he goes into detail about his work (and what he hates about it) and I found those passages to be necessary for both mood and character building. To this point, I think it’s very much personal preference; I don’t find it overly graphic, though Koch does not sugarcoat anything, so don’t expect that.

In the end, I read to see what happened, but I in no way found myself unable to put it down. It was not a page-turner, it was well-written and seemed well-researched when it came to the medical aspects, and the characters are brilliantly written (if not personally enjoyably). I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

The Secret Place

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Review #14: Fiction

The Secret Place by Tana French

Secret Place

*I received this book as an advanced reader’s copy from the Book Expo America convention in New York in May. The hardcover publication date is September 2nd, 2014.

At St. Kilda’s, an all-girls boarding school in Dublin, a boy from the neighboring Colm’s, an all-boys boarding school, was found dead somewhere in the wide lawn surrounding the school. He had been struck in the back of the head and found with nothing on his person but four hyacinths and a condom. The killer was never found.

One year later—Holly Mackey fakes sick from classes and instead walks into Detective Stephen Moran’s office. He’s working Cold Cases, but has been waiting for his shot at Dublin Murder Squad. Holly shows him a picture of the boy who was found dead a year ago, Chris Harper, from when he was still alive, the words, “I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM” cut and pasted across the image. She explains about “The Secret Place,” a board in a hall at St. Kilda’s where the girls write their secrets and pin them anonymously. This is where Holly has found the card. She had been a witness in a trial when she was younger, and Detective Moran had been working with her through it all. Because of that she thought of him when she found the card. And just like that, Detective Moran has his shot at Murder Squad.

He immediately brings the card to the murder detective that was on the Chris Harper case, Detective Conway, who is a badass, no nonsense woman. She allows Moran to continue to work with her, basically on the condition that if she ever feels he’s in her way, or not helping, etc. he gets the boot. Their working relationship plays a big role throughout, but pretty obviously enough they hit a few snags, though each is grateful for the other in the end.

They go up to the school and have to deal with a head mistress that is not too happy to see them and teenage girls who are easily spooked and manipulated. They’ve narrowed down who pinned the card on “The Secret Place” to eight girls: Holly, Becca, Selena, and Julia—Holly’s group of friends and roommates at the boarding school, and a group of four others—Joanne, Gemma, Orla, and Allison—a group that is essentially the arch nemesis of Holly and her friends. The detectives figure they can find out who killed Chris by finding out who posted the card, but this proves to be as hard to figure out as it was to find the killer a year ago. They have to navigate through girls who want to get each other in trouble for the fun of it, girls who are lying to protect themselves, girls who are lying to protect their friends, and those who are being manipulated into doing someone else’s dirty work. Needless to say, it gets real complicated real fast, and the detectives are running out of time. With an angry head mistress trying to keep the girls from leaking any information about Moran and Conway showing up again to any parents, and Holly’s father, another detective who is not too happy to find his daughter caught up in this investigation, in addition to them not really getting the okay to work the case, they need weave through all the lies and figure out who did it before they lose Chris’s killer for good, and possibly their jobs.

There’s a lot of interwoven events in this story. It’s a great mystery, one that had me guessing the killer was someone else probably 3 or 4 times throughout (along with the detectives). But the great thing is that this story is not only about the mystery of who killed Chris Harper, but also why they did it, and how they got away with it (for a year at least). It’s also a heartwarming and heart-wrenching story about friendships, how they change and evolve; how they sometimes fall apart or get brought back together. It’s very deep, has many, many levels and takes you back to those teenage years when all that mattered were your friends, and the real world wasn’t a thing.

We’re also invested in Detective Moran. Will he or won’t he help with this case? Will Conway send him packing? Will he be the one to figure it out? Will Conway acknowledge his help if they figure it out together? Will they both get demoted to a desk job for the rest of their careers for not exactly going by the book in their investigation?

I love that this story was so multifaceted. I cared about everyone: the St. Kilda’s girls and their friendships, Chris Harper and who killed him and why, Detective Moran and his shot at Murder Squat, and Detective Conway and her lost case. I think French was brilliant in making that possible.

I don’t want to talk too much about plot, because I think this is one story where every little detail brings you into the story and moves you along from page one, and I don’t want to be the one to give away even a spec of evidence if you’re like me and trying to play along at home with the investigation. The one thing I will say, and this is the only area that turned me off just a bit, is that there’s a strange sub-plot that brings in some supernatural happenings. Holly’s group of friends have found a way to sneak out into the glade at night. The first night they do this, Julia tells them about a boy from Colm’s who groped her without her consent, and then and there they all make a vow to not get involved with any guys from Colm’s or anywhere else, until they’ve left St. Kilda’s. They make some sort of pack that feels like it involves more than just the four of them, somehow taking into account the moon and the mysterious, hidden location of the glade (which they have claimed as “their place” from then on, a location that gives the title a double meaning). After this happens, the girls are able to do things with their mind, they are essentially becoming telekinetic; they can turn lights on and off, make light bulbs burst, levitate objects in their hands, heat things, and spark fire, etc. Not that I’m against supernatural story lines, this one was just not fleshed out enough for me. It came up every so often, softly, just little hints of it, though it didn’t play a major part in the story. It affected a few things, but I think I would have rather seen it expanded upon exponentially and been a main focus of the story, or had it removed altogether and had another way to have certain things happen. Like I said, it was a small grievance, and really didn’t make the story worse, just made me wonder and therefore pulled me out of the narrative sometimes.

Tana French writes this from both the past and the present, alternating every other chapter. The way she sets up the story, the present is at one end of a line while the past is at the other, and each chapter brings the reader closer and closer to the middle where the answers lay. The most impressive part is that the present is told from Detective Moran’s view point, written with attention paid to the adult world, the Murder Squad world of the story, while the past is written from the POV of various girls from St. Kilda’s – mainly Holly, Becca, Selena, and Julia. The way French writes, it is easy to slip back and forth from past to present as well as from adult mentality to teenage mentality. She gets the dialogue exactly right, especially with the teen sections. She includes some text talk, using the OMGs and the WTFs and the Amazeballs here and there, sometimes seriously, sometimes in a mocking sort of way, but also gives the girls’ intelligent and complex conversations and thoughts. She really captures that middle ground between childhood and adulthood and uses the dialogue perfectly to do it. She does not make them all stereotypical boarding school bratty airheads, but makes each of them their own character, well-rounded and unique.

Overall, I really liked the story. It kept me guessing and interested, and wasn’t at a break neck pace, trying to fit too many clues and twists in constantly. It was relatable from all points of view, and the writing was beautiful. Tana French has a way with words, setting scenes and creating characters and scenarios like very few authors I’ve read can do. I am looking forward to checking out the other books in her Dublin Murder Series (this is the 5th, though they do not seem to need to be read in order).

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

*Cover art from Amazon.com